Internal Combustion Engines, Critical Thinking and Making Good IT Decisions

Germany’s Spiegel magazine has reported that the German Bundesrat (Germany’s federal council that has representatives from all 16 German states) will ban the internal combustion engine beginning in 2030. Consequently, the only way to achieve this goal would be en masse adoption of electric cars to replace today’s cars that are powered almost exclusively by internal combustion engines. This is a bigger issue in Germany than it would be in the United States, since there are significantly more cars per person in Germany than in the US.

Sounds like a good idea, but edicts passed down from senior managers are not always feasible, particularly when those managers might not have done the math to determine if their ideas can actually be implemented by those in the trenches. For example, here’s the math on the Bundesrat’s edict:

  • As of the beginning of 2015, there were 44.4 million cars in Germany. If we assume that the average German car is driven 8,900 miles per year and gets 30 miles to the gallon, each car consumes the equivalent of just under 10 megawatt-hours of electricity per year (based on one gallon of gasoline = 33.7 kWh).
  • Replacing all 44.4 million cars with electric vehicles would require generation of 443.9 terawatt-hours of electricity per year solely for consumption by automobiles (9.998 mWh per car x 44.4 million cars).
  • In 2015, Germany produced 559.2 terawatt-hours of electricity from all sources. That means that Germany would need to produce or import about 79% more electricity during the next 14 years than it does today. However, during the 13-year period from 2002 to 2015, German production of electricity increased by only 12%.
  • If the additional electricity needed for use by cars came from wind generators, it would require 64.5 million square miles of wind farms (based on an average of 93.0 acres per megawatt of electricity generated), an area that is 468 times larger than Germany’s footprint of 137,903 square miles.
  • If the additional energy came from solar, it would require 1.22 million square miles of solar panels (based on an optimistic assumption of 13 watts of electricity generated per square foot), an area about nine times larger than Germany.
  • If the additional energy came from nuclear power, Germany would need to build the equivalent of 13 high-capacity plants (assuming they have the capacity of the largest US nuclear plant, operating at Palo Verde, AZ).
  • Germany could use all of the oil it currently imports for automobiles for the production of electricity, but that would defeat the purpose of switching to electric cars.
  • Consequently, the only logical options to achieve a complete ban on the internal combustion engine by 2030 are a) build lots of new nuclear power plants that will generate the electricity needed for electric cars, or b) reduce driving in Germany by at least 85%. But even the last option would requires substantially greater production of electricity in order to power the additional rail-based and other transportation systems that would be required to transport Germans who are no longer driving cars. Even if we assume the German government would phase in the abolition of the internal combustion engine over, say, 10-15 years following the 2030 deadline, there’s still the problem of producing 79% more electricity between now and 2040-2045.

So, while converting to electric cars is a good idea in theory, in practice it is highly unlikely to happen in the timeframe mandated by the Bundesrat. In short, edicts from senior managers often can’t happen because these managers never did the math or spoke to anyone in the trenches who would be responsible for trying to make it happen.

The point of this post is not to criticize the German government or the notion of reducing the consumption of fossil fuels, but instead to suggest that critical thinking is needed in all facets of life. When someone proposes a new idea, be skeptical until you’ve done the math and thought about the consequences and considered the various ramifications of the proposal. For example, when senior management suggests your company move the email system completely to the cloud, think through all of the potential ramifications of that decision. Are there regulatory obligations we will no longer be able to satisfy? How much will it cost to re-write all of the legacy, email-generating applications on which we currently rely? What will happen to our bandwidth requirements? How will we deal with disaster recovery? How do we manage security? What is the complete cost of managing email in the cloud versus the way we do it now?

Senior managers or boards of directors will sometimes implement policy or make other important decisions without first consulting those who actually need to make it happen. This means that senior management teams, task forces, boards of directors, etc. need to a) stop doing that, b) do the math for any decision they’re considering and c) consult with the people who will be charged with implementing their decisions.

The Future of Computing is 40 Years Ago

The history of computing can be oversimplified as follows:

  • 1950s through the 1970s: Mainframes, in which massive computing and data storage resources were managed remotely in highly controlled data centers. Intelligence and data were highly centralized, accessed through dumb terminals.
  • 1980s through the 1990s: Client-server computing, in which intelligence and data moved to the endpoints of the network as CPU power and storage became dramatically less expensive.
  • 2000s: Cloud computing, in which much of the intelligence and data storage is moving back to highly controlled data centers, but with lots of intelligence and data still at the endpoints.

I believe the fourth major shift in computing will be to revert back to something approaching the mainframe model, in which the vast majority of computing power and data will reside in data centers that are under the tight control of cloud operators using both public and private cloud models.

Smartphones now have more computing power than most PCs did just a few years ago, albeit with much less storage capacity. While the smartphone does not provide corporate users with the form factor necessary to do writing, spreadsheets, presentations, etc. with the same ease that a desktop or laptop computer does, the combination of a smartphone’s CPU horsepower coupled with a monitor and keyboard that serves as a dumb terminal would provide the same experience as a desktop or laptop. As proposed by Robert X. Cringely a couple of years ago, I believe that the corporate PC of the future will be a completely dumb terminal with no Internet connection or local storage. Instead, it will have only a monitor and keyboard and will use the smartphone in the corporate user’s pocket as its CPU and connectivity.

Why? Three reasons:

  • It will be more secure. Data breaches are an unfortunate and increasingly common fact of life for virtually every organization. Many data breaches are the result of simple mistakes, such as laptops being stolen out of cars or left behind at TSA checkpoints, but many data breaches are the result of hacking into on-premises, corporate servers that are insufficiently protected. A review of the most serious data breaches reveals that the vast majority of data breaches have occurred from on-premises servers and other endpoints, not cloud providers. Yahoo!’s recent and massive data breach is more exception than rule, since cloud data centers are typically more secure than those on-premises behind a corporate firewall.
  • It will be cheaper. Instead of providing a laptop and/or desktop computer to individual users, companies will be able to provide a much less expensive dumb terminal to their users that will use a smartphone’s intelligence and computing horsepower to provide the laptop or desktop computing experience transparently. Users will be able to sit down at any dumb terminal, authenticate themselves, and enjoy a laptop or desktop experience. Because storage will be in the cloud, there will be no local storage of data, reducing cost and enhancing security. And, if the dumb terminal is stolen, a company is out only a few hundred dollars, not the millions of dollars for which it might be liable if data is breached from a stolen or otherwise compromised device.
  • It will be more controllable. Instead of users having access to two, three or more computing devices, users can be equipped with just one corporate device, a smartphone, that will enable all of their computing experiences. When the employee leaves the company or loses their device, disabling access to corporate data will be easier and more reliable.

In short, the future of computing will be conceptually similar to what our parents and grandparents experienced: computing intelligence and data storage in some remote, secure location accessed by dumb devices (other than our smartphone).